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Cutting Edge

The Cutting Edge Lectures in Science

Initiated in 2003 with the express purpose of fostering communication between scientists in different disciplines as well as between scientists and the public, Cutting Edge Lectures in Science are made possible through the generous support of Faculty of Medical Sciences (Professor Marianna Newkirk, Associate Dean Research), Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (Professor Chandra Madramootoo, Dean), Faculty of Science (Professor Martin Grant, Dean), Faculty of Arts (Chris Manfredi, Dean) and the Centre for Applied Mathematics in Bioscience and Medicine (CAMBAM). For more information, please call 514-398-4094.
Where: Auditorium, Redpath Museum, 859 Sherbrooke Street West, Metro McGill/Peel
Seating is limited. No reservations necessary.
When: 6 PM, followed by a reception.
Cost: FREE, everyone welcome.

Most of the Cutting Edge Lectures in Science are available on iTunes U and on McGill podcasts. Go under the section entitled "Science and Technology" for video and audio recordings of Cutting Edge lectures.


January 9: Lights, action, camera - Making movies of molecules and materials 

By Bradley J. Siwick (Associate Professor, Canada Research Chair in Ultrafast Science (Tier II), Chemistry, McGill)

Microscopy - the science of investigating objects too small to be seen by the naked eye - has a long and rich history.  Scientists have always strived to improve their view of the microscopic world in order to bring new objects and phenomena into focus.  Recent years have seen rather spectacular developments in this regard.  In this talk I will take you on a tour through this new microscopy technology (most of which does not look anything like what you might expect from a microscope) and describe what we can learn by using it. In modern laboratories it is now rather commonplace to be able ‘see atoms’. With these new microscopy tools we know what species they are, how they interact with their neighbours and can even pick them up and move them to new locations.  We can determine the structure of individual protein molecules and are getting close to being able to watch them as they perform their function.  We can make atomic-level movies of chemical reactions and image materials and cells in 3D.  All of this was the stuff of Science fiction not so long ago.

Research in the Siwick laboratory is focused on developing technologies that will allow complex transient structures of molecular and material systems to be determined at the atomic level.  In particular, this involves engineering new instruments that unite the tools and techniques of electron microscopy with those of time-resolved (ultrafast) laser spectroscopy in novel ways.  They study photoinduced phase transitions in materials (order-disorder and order-order), where it will be possible to directly determine the changes in atomic configuration that accompany the system’s progress along the physical pathway between phases.  These techniques arel also employed to try and understand structural dynamics in functional light-activated nanocomposite, nanostructured and organic materials.


February 13: How well do we understand curvature?

By Niky Kamran (Department of Mathematics and Statistics, McGill University)

How do we describe the curvature of a geometric object, like a curve, a surface or a higher-dimensional continuum? What does the curvature of a geometric object tell us about its other properties, such as its degrees of symmetry and regularity? These questions have been studied by some of the great mathematicians of the past, including Newton, Gauss, Riemann and Cartan, and have led to the development of differential geometry, an important branch of mathematics in which the geometry of a space is studied using tools of mathematical analysis (differentiation, integration and comparison). Similar questions on the links between curvature, symmetry and regularity also come up in Physics, through Einstein's formulation of the relativistic field equations of gravitation in terms of the curvature of space-time. There have been some major recent advances in our understanding of curvature, although many questions still remain open. I will give a general description two such advances, namely the sphere theorem, proved by Brendle and Schoen in 2007, and the Willmore problem, settled in 2012 by Marques and Neves. I will also mention some open problems and work that is being currently carried out towards their solution. This talk is aimed at a general audience.

March 13: Neuroplasticity in the Adult Human Brain

By David J. Ostry (Professor, Psychology, McGill)

We frequently think of neuroplasticity in the human brain in the context of the developmental and maturational changes that occur in the brain and behaviour during childhood. Luckily, for those of us that are no longer children, the adult human brain remains remarkably plastic. A facet of this plasticity that has important clinical applications is that changes occur in both sensory and motor systems of the brain with surprisingly brief periods of training. I will tell you about a series of recent studies in my laboratory, where we see that the effects of motor learning spill over into sensory systems, and that perceptual learning may provide us with a back door to the motor system that can be exploited in therapeutic interventions.

Dr. Ostry's research focuses on understanding the biological mechanisms of voluntary movement and deals equally with speech production and human arm motion. His lab uses mathematical models, robots and behavioral and physiological techniques to assess motor function and the characteristics of motor learning. The overall goals are to understand the interplay of sensory and motor function and most recently, to understand how motor learning and adaptation affects sensory function in speech and limb movement. Dr. Ostry is also a senior scientist at Haskins Laboratories in New Haven, Connecticut.

April 10: Ecological and Forensic Applications of Remote Sensing

By Margaret Kalacska (Associate Professor, Geography, McGill)

Remotely sensed data from aircraft and satellite platforms have become increasingly important tools in geography to model landscape characteristics, monitor changes over time, as well as to locate specific features of interest.   In this presentation I will use examples from ongoing research projects to illustrate the utility of these tools for large-scale landscape characterization in both temperate and tropical ecosystems.  I will also introduce ‘Mission Airborne Carbon-13’, the first Canadian airborne hyperspectral mission to Costa Rica. From a forensic perspective I will describe recent breakthroughs in my collaborative research on clandestine grave detection in both Canadian and international contexts.

Dr. Kalacska completed her PhD at the University of Alberta in the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Department with a specialization in remote sensing and geographic information systems. Subsequently, she was a postdoctoral fellow in the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University where she began developing her research in forensic remote sensing.  She joined the Geography Department at McGill University in 2008.  Combining her expertise in remote sensing with her interests in ecology and forensics, her main research focuses on the use of data collected from aircraft and satellites to address a range of questions from aboveground carbon assessments in temperate and tropical forests to clandestine grave detection.


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